Friday, October 21, 2011


For many weeks I was reading this anthology of travel writing by women. I fished it out of a box at a garage sale. The box contained this booka and about 50 copies of Louis L'Amour novels, which is a combination I do not really understand. I thought it looked pretty cool, so I traded fifty cents for it, and I read the parts that were good, and skimmed the parts that were boring, and I'm very glad I did. For there were some parts that were really good.

1. Mary Kingsley
Mary Kingsley cared for her ailing parents for the first thirty years of her life. When they died, six weeks apart, she went to West Africa. It was 1892, and she did not think she was a feminist, even though it seems to me that she behaved like one. I'm quoting her not for her politics, but for her sense of humor. On her way through the jungle to collect fish, she and her group must cross a swamp by walking on a submerged log:

"All of us save one, need I say that one was myself, effected this with safety. As for me, when I was at the beginning of the submerged bridge, and busily laying about in my mind for an opinion as to whether it was better to walk on a slippery tree trunk you could see, or on one you could not, I was hurled off by that inexorable fate that demands of me a personal acquaintance with fluvial and paludal ground deposits; whereupon I took a header, and am thereby able to inform the world, that there is between fifteen and twenty feet of water on either side of that log. I conscientiously went in on one side and came up on the other. The log, I conjecture, is dum or ebony, and it is some fifty feet long; anyhow it is some sort of wood that won't float. I really cannot be expected, by the most exigent of scientific friends, to go botanising under water without a proper outfit."

2. Willa Cather
Everybody knows who Willa Cather is. I even read My Antonia, although I do not remember what it was about, except Nebraska I think. Willa Cather went to Europe with a friend in 1902, and wrote this about a French village called Lavandou:

"I am sure I do not know why a wretched fishing village, with nothing but green pines and blue sea and a sky of porcelain, should mean more than a dozen places that I have wanted to see all my life. No books have ever been written about Lavandou, no music or pictures ever came from here, but I know well enough that I shall yearn for it long after I have forgotten London and Paris. One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions that will make happiness; one only stumbles upon them by chance, in a lucky hour, at the world's end somewhere, and holds fast to the days, as to fortune or fame."

3. Kate O'Brien
Kate O'Brien was an Irish writer whose work I will have to look up, not just because some were banned in Ireland (sex! between ladies!) but because of this fantastic description of her suffering in the company of a fellow traveler on the way to Salamanca, Spain. (It makes little difference, but it was 1937, and she was 40, in case you wondered.)

"Boredom is of two kinds, passive and active. The passive kind tells on one in the end, but the active is immediate agony, and leaves a cicatrice that is liable to throb again if touched later in life. I am rather subject to active boredom -- but the scar inflicted by the Barber of Salamanca is one of my worst, and will never be completely insensitive. . . . I have sometimes believed that I could see shadows spead under people's eyes when they were being frantically bored. I have seen faces age and sag under the onslaught of amiable extrovertism -- and then I've known exactly what was happening in the victims' heads. Well, the Barber turned night into day that night. He told me the seating capacity of every restaurant and cinema in Salamanca. He told me the names of all the films which has come to those cinemas since their inception -- and his own opinion on them. He told me the names of all the cafes and hotels, of all the doctors, dentists, lawyers, chemists, and shoeblacks [this goes on] . . . And when the frantic business was over, when there had been about five sweet minutes of the silence and absence of the Barber, to be told that for two hours there could be no kind of reviving drink! Is it odd if I decided to hate Salamanca?"

4. Beryl Markham
Beryl Markham was the first person to fly east to west across the Atlantic alone. She was apparently kind of a remarkable person, admired by Hemingway even, who I don't imagine admired that many women, so I guess that's saying something. (I think it's saying Hemingway's a mysogenist.) While hunting in Africa (with Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen's ex-husband Bror Blixen) she and "Blix" have a close encounter with a rampaging elephant. (Heavily edited for length.)

"In an open place, it might have been possible to dodge, but not here. I stood behind Blix with my hands on his waist according to his instructions. But I knew it wasn't any good. The elephant's ears were spread wide now, his trunk was up and extended toward us, and he began the elephant scream of anger which is so terrifying as to hold you silent where you stand. It occured to me that this was the instant to shoot. Blix never moved. He held his rifle steady and began to chant some of the most striking blasphemy I have ever heard. It was colorful, original, and delivered with finesse, but I felt that this was a badly chosen moment to test it on an elephant. The elephant advanced, Blix released more oaths (this time in Swedish), and I trembled. There was no rifle shot. "I may have to shoot him," Blix announced, and the remark struck me as an understatement of classic magnificence. [The elephant screams again, startling its friends, who believe there's a danger and run away; he joins them, leaving Beryl and Blix safe, but irritable.] I foreswore the historic propriety of my sex to ask a rude question: "I think you're the best hunter in Africa, Blickie, but sometimes your humor is gruesome. Why in hell didn't you shoot?" He stared upward into the leaves of the boabob tree and sighed like a poet in love. "There's an old adage," he said, "translated from the ancient Coptic, that contains all the wisdom of the ages -- 'Life is life and fun is fun, but it's all so quiet when the goldfish die.'"

Beryl did not, somehow, shoot him on the spot.


Pandora said...

I think I need to borrow this book. It sounds excellent. Willa Cather is one of my favorites and the others sound very entertaining.

And I'm very glad Blix didn't shoot the elephant, but I probably would have clobbered him anyway.

Simon said...

It was full of interesting stuff!

I'm glad Blix didn't shoot the elephant, too. Although he was quite lucky they didn't both get smushed. (And this is why hunting safaris are a thing I will never experience!)